- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2007

CRIPPLE CREEK, Colo. — Their ancestors did backbreaking work in cold and pitch-dark mines, struggled through blizzards and rainstorms and never knew where their next meal was coming from. But this generation of wild donkeys may have decided to emulate Shrek’s waistline.

In an ironic twist of fate, this city’s historic herd of wild burros, the only live reminders of the Gold Rush that swept the Rocky Mountains a century and a half ago, have been rounded up and quarantined because of the onset of … obesity.

No more pizza, cheese nachos, pretzels, potato chips or other junk food, instructed the county veterinarian. Even carrots and apples are off the menu because of their high sugar content.

What’s left on the unfortunate donkeys’ plate?

“Just hay. Dry hay and water and nothing else for all of them for at least 60 days,” smiled Donna Brazill, a member of the Two Mile High Club, a local charity, which is taking care of the burros. “Each of them needs to lose about 100 pounds.”

Their thick coats may conceal it from passing glances. But more thorough scrutiny reveals rolls of fat covering the rib cages of the animals known for their docile and amiable character.

And their most recent weighing bears out the veterinarian’s diagnosis: The burros in the 11-member herd averaged 700 pounds, up from the 500 to 600 pounds they should weigh, caretakers said.

Switching from mining to the entertainment industry offered unquestionable benefits but also exacted a toll.

The first burros appeared in the area after 1858, when these mountains and canyons drew thousands of fortune seekers awakened by the second wave of the Gold Rush that hit the Rockies 10 years after California’s Sierra Nevada.

Grass-covered mine tailings still dot verdant hills, where fortunes were made and lost in the frenetic rush to hidden riches.

“These old mines are everywhere — between 4,000 and 5,000 of them were sunk in this area alone during the Gold Rush,” Mrs. Brazill said.

The burros, famous for their stoic endurance and high tolerance for pain, were summoned underground by mine operators to pull ore-laden carts to the surface.

It is not known how many animals were worked to death or perished, along with their owners, in mine-roof cave-ins and methane explosions.

But by the time the gold boom went bust in the early 20th century, there were still thousands of burros working in these mountains, bringing man’s riches out from underground.

“Some of them were permanently blind from working all their lives in the mines,” Mrs. Brazill said. “But when the Gold Rush ended, the miners picked up and went away, letting their donkeys loose and practically overnight creating a population of wild burros in the Rocky Mountains.”

More than 55,000 people lived in Cripple Creek and its surroundings at the height of the Gold Rush. Only about 1,200 remain.

Just one gold mine is still in operation a few miles outside the town, and 11 descendants of the Gold Rush-era burros have found here their home here — albeit in the new role of tourist entertainers.

The tourism industry of Cripple Creek, a town in the shadow of Pikes Peak at 10,000 feet above sea level, took off in the early 1990s after the community, faced with extinction, secured from the state a gambling license and turned the city into a mini-Las Vegas.

As many as 18 casinos now line its main thoroughfare, bringing visitors and a steady stream of income.

“But the burros remain the second biggest tourist attraction after the casinos,” said Greg Brazill, a businessman and Mrs. Brazill’s husband.

They roam the downtown area, examine displays behind shop windows and, if casino doors are left imprudently wide open, make unannounced appearances at blackjack tables.

But most often, they entertain families with children that come to Cripple Creek to get a feel of the Gold Rush era.

That’s when, say city officials, the burros’ normal vegetarian diet seriously goes awry.

Good-hearted visitors offer the animals slices of pizza, crackers, peanuts, nachos and potato chips — the whole assortment of snacks found in convenience stores along the highway.

“There have been instances when they were given bologna sandwiches and tobacco,” said Mr. Brazill. “The problem is that these animals don’t have self-control in food consumption. They will eat as much as they are being offered.”

The city administration has issued several passionate appeals to visitors to stop feeding the burros — to no visible effect.

And shortly before the Labor Day weekend, the vet’s ax fell.

Under the orders, the burros will remain in isolation — and on a strict diet — until the end of October, when their physical condition will be reassessed and, hopefully, they will be allowed to regain their free-range status.

By then, caretakers hope, early snowfalls may reduce the influx of tourists, and succulent summer grasses covering alpine meadows, which the burros consume to supplement their junk food diet, for sure will be gone.

But for now, residents and guests will have to content themselves with the sight of a bronze statue of a burro erected at the entrance to the city in honor of the animals that selflessly helped humans make their Gold Rush fortunes.

“We’ll miss them,” said Diana Puetz, an employee of the Midnight Rose, one of the downtown casinos. “But I am sure they will be back — in better shape than before.”

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